For many fans, the 1989 USC football season was over before it even began.
That’s what it felt like, at least, when USC quarterback Pat O’Hara went down with a season-ending knee injury only 10 days before the first game. His backup — an untested freshman — stepped in, and fans were worried. But magic moments often come from surprising places. By season’s end, the Trojans were Pac-10 and Rose Bowl champions, handing the faithful a satisfying fairy tale ending.
The Road to the 1990 Rose Bowl
Redshirt freshman quarterback Todd Marinovich had an impressive pedigree — his father Marv was a USC captain who played in the NFL — but he wasn’t expected to start that year. Yet he rose to the challenge and the team went undefeated in the Pac- 10. Wins included a dramatic comeback against Washington State that ended on a miraculous 91-yard touchdown march known as “The Drive”— a play that cemented the 1989 USC football team in Trojan lore.
When the 1990 Rose Bowl rolled around, it was deja vu: USC had faced the Michigan Wolverines in Pasadena the previous year. The Trojans were still smarting from a bitter 22-14 defeat and ready to even the score. But with Michigan legend Bo Schembechler coaching his final game, the Wolverines would likely come out swinging to send off their beloved leader.
USC had other ideas for Schembechler’s finale.
An Unexpected Ending
In the second quarter, defensive lineman Dan Owens blocked a Michigan punt and future NFL superstar Junior Seau returned it to the Wolverine 11-yard line. A touchdown soon followed. After a successful fourth-quarter Michigan fake punt was called back due to a penalty, the Trojans made a move with a minute of play left.
Running back Ricky Ervins took off on a 14-yard touchdown run that crystallized USC’s 17-10 victory. Ervins was named MVP, the Trojans had their payback and Schembechler refused all interview requests as he stalked off the field.
The win was especially sweet for USC Coach Larry Smith, who had served as a Schembechler assistant for six years. “I’m sorry that [Schembechler] is leaving the game,” Smith told the Los Angeles Times. “But you never apologize for winning.”
The win helped Trojans shake off four consecutive bowl game losses. And though the team didn’t make the championship leap everyone hoped for the following year, Trojan fans will never forget the thrilling end to a 1989 season that began as one of the most uncertain in USC football.